Formalities first: How to talk to your professors

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Assistant News Editor

The incoming freshmen class will have no trouble sending text messages and writing tweets, but when it comes to composing an email, experience has proven it to be a harder task. 

According to Pitt professors, one of the worst mistakes a student can make is treating an email like a text message. Professors like Jason Dechant said the best way to avoid unprofessionalism in emails was to make students aware of how they are communicating. 

So, how do you approach your professors? Below, with advice from three Pitt professors, is how professors wish their students would communicate with them.

Rule number one: 

Start off formally, no matter what

Until they tell you otherwise, nursing school professor Dechant always tells his students to address their professors formally in order to make a good first impression. Even though he’s a professor himself, he is still formal with some of his colleagues, he said.

“The first time you address them, address them formally and usually the person will tell you how to continue,” Dechant said. “The first time I introduce myself to somebody I still use their title.” 

Different professors have different preferences, Dechant said, and a student shouldn’t write off a professor that wants more formality than others. 

“Some of it is also a generational thing. I’m in my 40s, so I work with a lot of people who are much older than me, and I still address them by their formal title because when they were trained, that’s just how they did it,” Dechant said.

Dechant warned that the younger generation of professors may be easily offended if a student is unprofessional in their communication because they could feel it is undermining their authority. 

Physics professor Russell Clark agreed that sometimes students forget who their audience is, and that makes communication more difficult. 

“This is your opportunity to practice a professional relationship,” Clark said. “You’re dealing with professionals, and you want to interact with them that way.” 

As the semester continues, it’s okay for students to be less formal with their professors, Dechant said. The best move, he said, is to let the professor decide, and they will let the student know if it is OK with them to be more casual.

“Address them formally, use their title and within 30 seconds of the conversation you’ll know how to direct your responses and your level of professionalism versus casual,” Dechant said. “As the relationship builds, they may let you in a little bit and may say, ‘I prefer this sort of distinction.’”

Rule number two: 

Watch your email etiquette

Email can make it easier to communicate with professors, but the electronic medium is a minefield for mistakes, according to Clark.

It’s important for a student to include his or her full name, the class he or she is in and the main purpose he or she is writing early on in the message for all emails. Keeping the message short and simple is easier for professors, but students must include the basics if you want to get a response, Clark said. 

“The more info you can provide the faster you’ll get a response, otherwise I have to write back and we exchange 6 or 7 emails trying to figure out what you’re asking,” Clark said. 

Pernille Røge, a professor in the history department at Pitt, said aside from content, she advises students to make sure they use correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. Students should also be aware of their connotation and word usage, to make sure they are setting the right tone, she said.

“Don’t treat it like a text message. If you address an email that starts with ‘Hey,’ that’s not professional,” Dechant said. “The beauty of an email is that you have a minute to look it over and say ‘What is the tone that I’m trying to set with this?’”

As for follow up emails, Dechant said he tries to respond to as many emails as possible, but sometimes a few will slip through the cracks. He recommends waiting a few days to send a follow-up and never bombarding him with emails. Dechant also suggests skipping email altogether and attending his office hours if there is an important question or urgent concern. 

Rule number three: 

Go to office hours

Though it doesn’t set a specific number, Pitt’s Faculty Handbook requires all professors to set office hours. But according to Clark, many students think talking before or after class is the best time. It’s not, he said — he can’t devote the time and attention the student needs when he is being pushed out of the classroom by another professor or needs to start class. 

When students do come to office hours, Clark said, they should bring questions, so they can get the most out of their time there. 

“The professor won’t think you’re not smart if you have a question,” Clark said. “I don’t see questions as a sign of ignorance. I see them as a sign of curiosity.”

Dechant said students should know that the experience may be very different than they expect, and that they have nothing to lose. 

“Professors will have one persona in class that is very cut and dry, but you go them in person, and it’s a very different experience,” Dechant said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Rule number four: 

It’s OK to grow close with professors

The bond with your professors can go beyond asking for homework help. When Dechant was an undergraduate student at Pitt, he said, he approached one of his anthropology professors about wanting to learn more about his career. They set up a meeting and the relationship formed. 

“Most people are excited that somebody else is interested in what they are doing,” Dechant said. 

Despite extremely difficult exams and mounds of homework, professors are looking out for their students’ successes. Students’ time at Pitt is limited, Røge said, so they should make the most of it.

“I would encourage them to find out as much as possible about this place as soon as possible, so they can hit the ground running,” Røge said.

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